Turning sunlight into water: New technology and old knowledge to stop Timor-Leste from running dry
DILI: An alien structure is humming over the distant lapping of some of the world’s clearest and biodiverse waters.
The locals from Akrema village on the remote island of Atauro have never seen anything like it before - 40 hydropanels in rows, tilted towards the sky, performing a mysterious process to give them a commodity they so badly need: Clean water.
The technology - called SOURCE - by American company Zero Mass is designed to produce high-quality drinking water purely from sunlight and air. Without connecting to grid power, it uses solar energy to form condensation in the panels, which slowly collects and runs down a hose to the village below.
“This is something like a miracle,” said Adap Coreia, a local villager and supervisor of the project in Akrema. “This is something new for us and we are really excited. It really surprised us because other places in Atauro also don’t have water. But we are happy they chose this place.”
It is the type of innovation being rolled out in communities around the world suffering from severe water shortages, as the effects of climate change start to be felt more dramatically.
Underdeveloped island nations like Timor-Leste are at great risk of running out of water, as rainfall decreases, consistency of rain varies and underground water tables run dry or get contaminated by rising sea levels.
With funding from Conservation International (CI), this US$200,000 hydropanel project was rolled out in two villages in Atauro last year. It is meant to provide each village with 200 litres of fresh water every day - 5 litres per panel.
The technology is relatively new to Southeast Asia, with a small number of existing projects in Indonesia, the Philippines and in Kranji in Singapore.
As long as anyone can remember in Akrema, a lack of water has been a problem. At present, elderly women gather water from a brackish well at the centre of the village. It is only good for washing, but not cooking or drinking.
“During the long dry season, it’s really difficult to access water – for drinking water, for animals and for food as well,” Coreia said.
“In the past we only used the water collected in the tank from the rain. This project makes us really happy because it gives us another option.
“If you talk about climate change, it’s really affecting our activities - the fishing, our agriculture and keeping the animals. It’s changing the seasons for corn. It cannot grow well because of not enough water and some coconuts we plant die because it’s too hot,” he said.
When CNA visited the island, there were however, clear teething issues with the advanced technology.
Locals said they had received no outside assistance for several months and a number of the panels were not functioning.
Issues with installed SIM cards used for remote monitoring were unresolved and the villagers had come up with their own basic methods to troubleshoot and keep the water flowing. The system was now only producing about 20 litres daily, they said, just 10 per cent of its designed capacity.
Responding to CNA's queries, Zero Mass said: “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the island has been much more difficult to reach and we have therefore faced unexpected logistical challenges. Access has been restricted, but Zero Mass Water, and the local partners are actively working to supply replacement parts in the next few weeks.”
Zero Mass did not respond to questions about the management of its hydropanels.
Still, in Akrema, there was widespread enthusiasm about the project.
Locals’ anecdotal experience of climate change matches national analysis by experts. Rain is not like it used to be, indeed, the seasons have never been more confused.
“We have a problem with water scarcity and a decrease in agricultural production,” said Adao Soares Barbosa, Timor-Leste’s National Focal Point to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).
“In terms of rainfall, we will get more drought and water soil content will be decreased. By 2070, there’s a possibility of 20 per cent of annual rain falling during the dry season. And it will be very dry in the wet season. It will almost be not possible for us to grow things,” he said.
ARE MORE NATURAL SOLUTIONS THE WAY TO GO?
With apparent adaptation issues present at the project on Atauro, others fighting for water preservation and protection are instead advocating for more natural solutions.
Permaculturist Ego Lemos is leading efforts in parched communities to plant trees and re-establish or create reservoirs, which can prevent erosion and help save water from being wasted as runoff during wet season.
Instead of new technology, he wants locals to adapt old knowledge.
Through his organisation PERMATIL, Lemos is mobilising villagers to take ownership of their water issues. Working groups plant native trees on weekends and after learning about local topography, build up areas where water naturally pools.
“It means for the whole rainy season we could save millions of litres of water, which will sink down to the ground and increase the groundwater and slowly release to the creeks and feed many springs down below,” Lemos said.
“If every community in Timor-Leste was doing the same thing, I’m sure in a few years time, Timor will have no problem with water, especially when we’re facing the problem of climate change, which is slowly, slowly impacting on the whole community.”
The national capital Dili is reliant on springs that flow from the surrounding mountains. Without intervention, the city could face severe water shortages in the future.
However, Lemos is opposed to large-scale projects, which he believes are disruptive, expensive and unnecessary.
“I’m learning from traditional knowledge. This system is actually already existing for centuries. But because of modernisation, people are starting to ignore this type of system and turning to building big dams rather than looking at the small scale, low maintenance and more ecological solutions,” he said.
“Many communities are running out of water, which is causing a lot of problems like violence and also making the children and women especially carry water long distances.”
A quarter of Timor-Leste’s population - about 350,000 people - is already experiencing water scarcity. It makes daily life and other developmental goals much harder to achieve, according to Manuel Mendes, the country director for CI Timor-Leste.
CI is principally focused on its marine protection areas in Atauro. But to ask locals to help protect the environment when they are fighting to survive themselves is a difficult proposition. A lack of water compounds issues related to food, health and security.
“We can provide them more opportunities for their livelihoods, but if they have no water, they have no option,” Mendes said.
The organisation is looking at the possibilities of rolling out more water solutions around the country. There is great need. The approach they take though - and whether it be high-tech like the existing hydropanels - is still up in the air.
Editor's Note: A comment from Zero Mass Water has been added to this story following initial publication.
Delve deeper, read our special coverage on climate change here: cna.asia/climatechange